The Carabao Cup semifinals are here, and you can stream them live on ESPN+ over the next few days. But what will the first legs reveal when the teams clash? Nick Ames is your guide.
MANCHESTER UNITED vs. MANCHESTER CITY
The state of play
Manchester’s red and sky-blue halves face off in a tie that could theoretically kick-start their respective seasons. If the carrot of a Wembley final were not enough, then the chance to assert local bragging rights should be sufficient motivation and City, in particular, have a recent score to settle. Last month, United, in one of the best tactical displays of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure, executed a supreme counter-attacking performance to beat City at the Etihad and drill yet another nail into the coffin of their title defence.
More of the same at Old Trafford would be a surprise and Guardiola surely has a plan to ensure City are not caught out badly again. But there is every incentive for Solskjaer to conjure up a repeat.
United remain woefully inconsistent and reserve their best displays for matches against opponents who push high and leave gaps at the back; if the Norwegian can get a tune out of his side this time, setting them up positively ahead of the second leg and then sending them to the final, it might just improve his long-term job prospects.
The key men
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford played havoc on the break in that Premier League meeting and will surely be crucial to anything United can achieve on Tuesday night. Martial missed the weekend’s FA Cup trip to Wolves through illness and Solskjaer will be desperately hoping his return to training on Monday passed with no further issues.
City can call upon Sergio Aguero, who was absent from their previous clash and might well have finished off one of their second-half chances, and may find United offer up more space on their own turf. But their defensive players will need to be sharp and it is the kind of occasion on which Rodri, so positionally astute in his deep midfield role, will need to drop in effectively and cover when United spring a fast break.
The big question
Can City get it right from the start this time?
In the league game at the Etihad they were down 2-0 within half an hour and more of the same, in front of a keyed-up Old Trafford crowd, could give them a mountain to climb. They will have noted how Arsenal blew United away in the first half on New Year’s Day, before sitting in and exposing their inability to unlock a packed back line. A similar approach could pay dividends here.
Prediction: Man United 1-2 Man City
Guardiola is not to be outwitted twice, and City should come away with a potentially decisive lead ahead of their home leg.
LEICESTER vs. ASTON VILLA
The state of play
A look at the league table suggests this a mismatch. Villa are scrambling to stay away from the relegation zone, while Leicester have mounted the closest approximation to competition for runaway leaders Liverpool, against all odds.
Brendan Rodgers’ side may have stuttered slightly around Christmas — although everything is relative given their tremendous streak of form in the autumn, which included a deserved win at Villa Park — but they should be at full tilt for this semifinal and know that a Carabao Cup triumph would underline the rapid progress they have made over the past 12 months.
Villa’s position is more uncertain, with long-term injuries to Wesley and Tom Heaton harming their cause and the absence of John McGinn, their best player over the season so far, a major blow. They are slightly fortunate to be here given that they were faced with a scratch Liverpool side owing to the Merseysiders’ Club World Cup priorities in the last eight. But Dean Smith made a number of changes for the weekend’s FA Cup third round defeat to Fulham and they will be well rested.
A clash between Midlands rivals, with the stakes this high, means all bets may be off.
The key men
This feels like a clash of the Premier League’s two most vaunted young playmakers. James Maddison and Jack Grealish have both had tremendous seasons and it would take a bid north of £50m to prise either away. Both have been linked strongly with moves to Manchester United, in particular. But who can wield the most influence here?
Maddison slots beautifully into what, for all their flair and invention, is a tightly wound Leicester unit and will be expected to pull the strings on Wednesday. A little more heavy lifting may be required of Grealish, particularly given Villa’s injury woes, but this is the kind of high-octane occasion he thrives on.
Villa will also need to hope those around him are up to the job. Can Jonathan Kodjia, who put Liverpool’s youngsters to the sword last month, step up and prove he can answer their striking problems against top opponents? And can Tyrone Mings, one of the revelations of this top-flight season, stop Jamie Vardy in his tracks?
The big question
Can Villa get themselves a foothold in the tie? They have not kept a clean sheet away from home all season and, against a side that has only failed to score three times 26 games, will need to find a way of keeping things tight. With that December blip seemingly behind them, Leicester will sense an opportunity to make the return game at Villa Park feel relatively comfortable.
Prediction: Leicester 2-0 Aston Villa
Leicester will give themselves a solid advantage in a well-contested, competitive game to edge nearer to a first trophy under Rodgers.